Claiming the legacy of oppression through art

Anne Mavor, Guest Writer

Anne Mavor, Guest Writer

I Am My White Ancestors: Claiming the Legacy of Oppression is a touring installation and public engagement project. It contains thirteen life-size photographic self-portraits that explore European-American heritage, family history, and its legacy of oppression in the history of race, class, colonization, and genocide. The personas, real and imagined, span over 2000 years from the Celtic Iron Age to the present day with the artist’s contemporary self-portrait. The 84” x 54” portraits, printed on fabric panels, are accompanied by audio and written narratives from the perspective of each character. The project was initially exhibited in 2016 at Clackamas Community College, Oregon City, Oregon and also was shown at Northfield Mount Hermon School in Massachusetts. My dream venue is a school that wants to collaborate with me on a program that includes conversations, lectures, and class assignments about racism and whiteness.

I have always used art to explain the world. I love how disparate elements can be combined to transform complex issues. And more personally, I love what that process can do to me. My work is primarily content driven, which means that the form changes to accommodate content. For my recent project, I researched genealogy, designed and sewed historical costumes, painted backdrops, and wrote and recorded audio stories. It is important to me to be clear about my message but I also hope that people will come upon their own interpretation and understanding.

I have been working on my racism for about 25 years but it wasn’t until I created I Am My White Ancestors that things became real. There was something about going public as a white person that highlighted my fear of challenging the rules and getting attacked. Evidently it is not ok to talk about being white so blatantly. Each time I described the project to a new person I steeled myself for their confusion and possible judgment. Even saying the title felt like a risk. But it also opened a door into a wider and richer world that I never knew existed in my white bubble.

My initial goal was to “claim my people” and see if I could find the source of racism in my family. I wanted to understand what my ancestors had experienced and passed on to me, the legacy of oppression. I expected to also see links to related oppressions, like sexism, anti-Jewish oppression, genocide, greed, war and colonization. When I began the project in early 2014, I didn’t know how many ancestors I could find and was prepared to imagine some if necessary. But I also had a feeling that my family would yield enough for the project and happily it did. It was helpful that on my mother’s side I have ancestors who arrived on the Mayflower in 1620 since those descendants have been documenting and researching their ancestors for centuries.

Sir Nicholas Baganel

Sir Nicholas Baganel

Desire Howland Gorham

Desire Howland Gorham

The process of finding the characters was profound. Just knowing that this person who lived so long ago was intimately connected to me was mind blowing. What if my 16th century ancestor Sir Nicholas Baganel had a nose just like mine? And here is the thing—doing this research made me see who I am in a new way.

Ancestor Desire Howland Gorham, born in Plymouth Colony in 1623, grew up in a Puritan family during the early years of the colony. I learned that it was common practice for children to be sent away to live with another family either to lessen parental attachment, protect them from illness, or when a new baby was born. Amazingly, or maybe not, when I was three my sister was born and I was sent away on an extended trip to South Carolina with my grandmother. My memories of that trip are not happy ones. How is it that a practice like that is still alive and well almost 400 years later? What else has been passed down to me and other people?

My goal as I sifted through the generations was to find individuals who had stories that illustrated various oppressions and how they were involved and perpetuated them. My theory is that people only hurt others if they have already been hurt or oppressed in some way. We have to learn it somewhere. In challenging oppression, we usually focus on the victims. But for this project I was interested in reaching the oppressors, who are the ones with the problem and who are responsible after all. Also, given their dominant role, present day people in oppressor roles could, if they chose, have a significant impact on ending that oppression. Since we are all members of dominant groups–adults, able-bodied people, heterosexuals, men, white people, Protestants, for instance—things could change quickly.

Mark Mawer

Mark Mawer

It was not hard to find the oppressions. War, greed, colonization, sexism, racism, and more permeate US and European history. But somehow they get covered over as normal. I wanted to bring them to light and see how they affected each individual. Once I found an ancestor I wanted to use, I delved into what was going on at the time and what their lives might be like. I used this information to imagine their early lives, how they might have been hurt and thus susceptible to hurting others. Listen to the audio narratives here.

Ancestor Mark Mawer, a 17th century Scottish farmer, was a juror on a witchcraft trial that sent two women to the gallows. A deathbed promise to his mother when he was a child and rigid church teachings led to his inability to say no to convicting the women even though he regretted it. This fear of standing up alone against social pressure was something I have felt too. I could also see strengths in him that we share, like loyalty and sincerity. The story ends with Mark deciding never to marry so that he wouldn’t hurt another woman.

So how has this project affected me? First, it’s clear that who I am came from my history. The legacy of oppression I inherited includes my unconscious beliefs, my fears, my strengths, and of course my position in society. I am not at fault yet I am responsible. I can be both proud and ashamed of my history but it is mine. Second, I can see racism more clearly. I believe this is because my whiteness is becoming more defined as a distinct identity to me with qualities and behaviors that before were invisible. Here’s a small example of something that happens all the time. A couple of years ago I was at an artist talk. Behind me was a black woman sitting beside a white man. After the talk he got up immediately and almost stepped on her in his rush to leave his seat. As I was watching this unfold she noticed me and we shared a moment of exasperation at white people being stupid. I was pleased that she could tell I wasn’t completely clueless as an ally. But a further step would have been for me to say something to the man, like, “Hey brother, hold your horses. She’s first.” For white people in general our whiteness is still the invisible normal. Someday we will be just another group in the world, no better and no worse than anyone else. In the meantime I am thrilled to be part of this exploration and liberation of all people.

So what do you do with this information?

Finding our families is one step but how can we use that information to understand our place in the world and grow as people? Focus first on the ways you can be proud of your family. For descendants of immigrants, your ancestors survived hardships, distance from homeland and family to find a better life in the US or wherever they emigrated. They did their best, were hardworking, inventive, loyal, brave, strong, and loved each other. Many were honest, had integrity and were generous to whoever they came across. Learn what was going on at the time and the societal pressures your people experienced. It’s ok to feel sympathy for them and connection. That is your base that will allow you to look at the oppressor side.

But don’t stop there. An African American man I met was adamant that white people don’t get a pass by ignoring the negative parts of our past. So also explore the oppressor side. Yes, they were blind to the suffering of native cultures and enslaved people, greedy for resources and land, put their own needs first, and built a culture of isolation and independence. How does that past still affect you? How does it feel to think about that? Can you imagine their lives and why they lived that way? Learning this information contradicts much of what we have heard about our families. You may feel confusion, shock, shame, or sadness for instance. That’s ok. Can you share those feelings with someone?

Anne Mavor is an artist based in Portland, Oregon. Her work combines storytelling, research, performance, visual imagery, and collaboration to illuminate social issues. She received a grant from the John Anson Kittredge Fund for her book Strong Hearts, Inspired Minds: 21 Artists who are Mothers tell their Stories and a residency from The Mesa Refuge. The installation I Am My White Ancestors: Claiming the Legacy of Oppression premiered in 2016 and has been supported by The Puffin Foundation and RACC. Anne has a BA in art from Kirkland College and an MFA in creative writing from Antioch University, LA.

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